Compiled for OzSportsHistory by Brian Membrey

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Playgrounds : The Showgrounds

The Royal Showgrounds had its origins in 1882 when it became the new home for the National Agricultural Society (later the Royal Agricultural Society or R.A.S) after the colonial Government revoked its occupancy of a 17.5 acre site in St. Kilda Road bounded by Coventry and Dorcas streets to the north and south and Hannah Street (now King's Way) to the west, land that had been Temporarily Reserved From Sale by Government Decree on 16 February, 1872.

Around the same time, the Victoria Racing Club was eager to acquire land behind the hill on which the grandstand now sits for an extension to the course; the secretary, Mr. Byron Moore approached the owner, who refused to subdivide the land but agreed to sell the entire block with an area in excess of the club's needs, and as a result, Moore offered a section of 30 acres to the Government as a replacement site for the National Agricultural Society.

The first Show at new Showgrounds opened on 7 November, 1883 and proved a resounding success.  A show ring and many pavilions were erected over the years and immediately after the War in a bid to introduce night trotting, the R.A.S. spent around spend £250,000 to remove several somewhat dilapidated structures around the arena, to erect a modern grandstand to accommodate an additional 10,000 people, to widen the show ring track from 30 to 45 feet, and to extend it from three to three and a half furlongs, then considered ideal for trotters.

Given the chronic shortage of building materials following the end of the war, there was still considerable opposition to the project after the Bill was passed and the Government decided to sell some 109,600 linear feet of timber which had been used for the erection of temporary grandstands at Kooyong for the 1946 Davis Cup final to the R.A.S., the timber providing the bulk of the material for the stands.

December, 1948 saw an announcement that that if Melbourne were allotted the Games, they would be held at the Royal Showgrounds in Ascot Vale, the plan sanctioned by the State Government after consultations with the Royal Agricultural Showgrounds, the Melbourne City Council and Olympic representatives.  

It was suggested that the plans would be complementary to a war-delayed 20-year scheme of Showgrounds expansion.

The Royal Agricultural Society offered to raise £1.5 million towards the estimated cost of £5 million cost of erecting a new stadium, proposing the Federal and State Governments and the Australian Olympic Federation should contribute the balance. The Committee of the Games accepted unanimously the Showgrounds as the Games site.

The proposed plan involved the acquisition of extra land, extension of the tramline into Flemington racecourse parallel to the existing train line, extensive car parking within the course connected to the Showgrounds by subways under the railway lines, and construction of a new stadium 950 feet long by 700 feet wide with a two-tier concrete stand to seat 70,000, the erection of stadiums for swimming and diving (with a proposal to convert them to storerooms after the Games, boxing and wrestling, and pavilions built for the accommodation of up to 4,000 competitors "if necessary", although it was suggested visiting athletes would not be happy quartered so close to crowds at the events.

With a double train line served by two stations and "adequate" tram services, it was believed up to 200,000 people per day could be carried by public transport, and the site had the advantage of being easily accessible within a few miles of Essendon, then Melbourne's major airport

The eventual site for the main stadium was to prove the basis of a long and protracted battle : the original Showgrounds proposal came from a committee of mainly businessmen and civic leaders, and amateur sporting officials expressed doubts over the site, citing the fact that although it would nominally be available for eleven months of the year, they would have no effective control over its use and it was likely to be used for, horror of horrors!, "professional" sporting events with the Royal Agricultural society reaping the benefits of the improvements.

The divisions became obvious in December, 1948, the chairman of the Victorian Olympic Council (Mr. William Uren, asked the Victorian Amateur Swimming Association, of which he was chairman, to move that the Australian Olympic Federation should withdraw its support of Melbourne's application, stating that Olympic Park was the obvious site for an Olympic stadium and that people In the best positions to give advice had not been consulted.

He was supported by the Amateur Swimming Union of Australia, but the president of the Victorian Amateur Athletic Association (Mr. J. X. O'Driscoll, K.C.), said any criticism by athletic officials was purely personal as the V.A.A.A. council had not discussed the matter and he was strongly in favour of the show grounds being used for the Games because of the excellent accommodation and the future benefit from the building of a stadium there.

The secretary of the Australian Olympic Federation (Mr. Edgar S. Tanner) said any plans would have to be approved by his organisation as the International Olympic Federation rules held the national Olympic Federation of the city selected as directly responsible for the organisation of the Games; it was also revealed by the secretary of the V.A.A.A. that the original Olympic Park Invitation Book had embraced the Olympic Park area as “almost taken for granted as the site”.

The Premier (Mr. Thomas Hollway) threatened to resign from the Olympic Games Invitation Committee and withdraw Government sponsorship for the 1956 Games in Melbourne, saying he was amazed and disgusted at the wrangle over the selection of the Showgrounds as the site for the Olympic Games stadium, and if amateur sporting bodies did not cease attacking the Invitation Committee, committee, the Government would have to consider its position and allow those bodies to get the games “by their own efforts”.  He later admitted that he Government was in a much better position to support the Showgrounds site because it would have a much better chance of getting back money spent there than at Olympic Park.

The brochure issued overseas outlining the plans in preparation for the presentation of the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne endorsed the Showgrounds site.

There were also grave concerns over the cost with many building projects of the time running considerably over budget because of the shortage of materials, and the Showgrounds scheme was basically "dead in the water" by the end of 1951, despite the influential Victoria Racing Club also backing the development.

In June, 1951, the R.A.S. and O.O.C. presented to Premier John McDonald the latest estimates for the Games, the estimates for the Showgrounds stadium (minus the cycling track) now an incredible £3,950,000 with £1,598,000 caused by the Games and permanent benefits to the R.A.S. £2,362,000. The report suggested the Federal Government should pay the £1,598,000 with the balance financed by the State, half by grant and half by loan.

The itemised costs were given as £800,000 grandstand to seat 80,000, £50,000 for land resumption on the south side of Lennon Crescent, £250,000 for re-grading and reconstruction of the arena, £100,000 for demolition of many existing buildings, £500,000 for a two or three-story building under the main stand for administration and to accommodate 500 athletes, £500,000 for other new buildings, £1,160,000 for sewerage and other essential services, and £360,000 for overheads and professional supervision

All that was left the Showgrounds was the vague hope of hosting the equestrian events; but this came to nothing with Federal Government refusing to lift quarantine laws that demanded horses from countries other than the United Kingdom and New Zealand to be stabled for six months before being released.

In April, 1962, the Trotting Control Board and Royal Agricultural Society presented a plan to the Government to enlarge the track and make improvements to the value of £1.25 million.  

The T.C.B. also briefly experimented with trotting at the Showgrounds on Friday evenings, but attendances slumped to an alarming degree and the trail was abandoned after six weeks with the "red hots" returning to the traditional Saturday night schedule.

The Showgrounds was a popular venue with its intimacy and proximity to the action and went through something of a boom period in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s with direct telecasts during HSV-7’s "Sunnyside Up" program, hosted appropriately enough by daytime race-caller Bill Collins.

A few years later and the facilities were becoming some faded, and with the three and a half furlong track no longer considered suitable  for the markedly improved breed (the average mile rate had improved by over ten seconds in the intervening years), and the Trotting Control Board approached the Moonee Valley Racing Club with a plan to build a track inside the racing track and the final curtain went down on night trotting at the Showgrounds on 13 October, 1976.

In 2002, the State Government announced a refurbishment of the Royal Melbourne Showgrounds site, to be carried out as a joint venture partnership with the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria and private sector investors with demolition commencing in June and all work to be completed by the 2006 Royal Melbourne Show.   

Several Heritage listed buildings dating back to 1915 were restored, and an 2008, an extensive section of the Showgrounds at the Ascot Vale end was redeveloped as a major neighbourhood shopping centre and child care centre.

The Showgrounds, the image believed to be part of the first series of aerial photographs taken over Melbourne in the summer of 1917-18 by Charles Daniel Pratt.

Flemington racecourse is visible to the left and the aeroplane would have been directly over the Ascot course on the other side of Epsom Road and looking westwards.

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The above diagrams of the proposed Main Stadium (left)  and Olympic Pool (right) appeared in Melbourne newspapers on 28 February, 1948 as having been presented before the Olympic Invitational Committee, but the designer was not acknowledged, nor was any possible site referred to.

The Invitation Book published a couple months later and distributed oversea included the plans in colour and vaguely suggested a site "on the banks of the Yarra"; the Stadium illustration did however re-appear in newspapers at the time of the announcement of its possible construction at the Showgrounds



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